Out of the east – The failure of the ‘Arab Spring’.
If the test of the Arab Spring was its treatment of minorities, it has failed. Hopes that the region was poised to make the transition to liberal democracy have proved to be premature, trampled under the boots of the ethno-religious cleansers. The old-style corrupt despots have metastasised into even older-style Islamist xenophobes. The Arab world, already judenrein, now seems determined to slough off its Christian minority.
A few weeks ago, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Amdullah, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, responded to a question posed by a visiting Kuwaiti delegation. Would sharia permit churches to exist in their emirate? The sheikh’s response was categorical. Kuwait is part of the Arabian Peninsula, he said, and ‘therefore it is necessary to destroy all the churches of the region’.
The Sheikh based his ruling on a Hadith which recorded the Prophet’s deathbed declaration that, ‘There are not to be two religions in the Peninsula’, a command that has been interpreted to mean that only Islam may be practised in the region.
Now, the Grand Mufti is not just another swivel-eyed fanatic. He is the most senior Islamic authority in Saudi Arabia, president of the Supreme Council of Ulema [Islamic scholars] and chairman of the Standing Committee for Scientific Research and Issuing of Fatwas. His views do not make him an isolated extremist.
Just ask the dwindling Arab Christian minorities in the region who believed their arabness would trump their Christianity — the Copts and Chaldeans, the Maronites and Melkites, the Latin Rite Catholics and Protestants, the Armenians, Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East and others. They have paid a high price for hanging on. Christian Arabs constituted 20 per cent of the region’s population a century ago; today, they represent about 5 per cent, and falling.The remnant of the 2,000-year-old Christian population is being decanted from the Arab world.
Take Iraq, whose liberty was won at the cost of thousands of soldiers from the Christian West. When the Americans invaded in 2003, about 1.4 million Christian Arabs called Iraq their home. Since then, some 70 churches have been burned and about 1,000 Christians killed in Baghdad alone. Three quarters of the community have fled, leading the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, the Revd Jean Benjamin Sleiman, to lament ‘the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East’.
Across the border, a war-within-a-war is raging in Syria. While Homs has been besieged by the army of Bashar al-Assad over the past two months, Islamist fanatics from the ranks of the rebels found time to root out the city’s 50,000 Christians and force them to flee. The Christians of Homs, having abandoned their homes and their belongings, are now sheltering in mountain villages about 30 miles from the city. They are unlikely to return.
The Catholic News Agency reports that Syria’s Christian community has suffered terrorist attacks in other cities, too. Last month, a car bomb exploded in the Christian quarter of Aleppo, close to the Franciscan-run Church of St Bonaventure. ‘The people we are helping are very afraid,’ said Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who is overseeing a Catholic aid programme. ‘The Christians don’t know what their future will hold.’
If the Christians of Iraq and Syria are being ‘persuaded’ to leave by Islamic extremists who bomb their churches and murder their priests, so, too, are the Copts, who have lived in Egypt since the days of the pharaohs, well before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.
Last year, some 200,000 Coptic Christians — such Christians once made up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population — fled their homes after being subjected to killing, beatings and church-burnings in Alexandria, Luxor and Cairo. On New Year’s Day last year, 21 Copts were slaughtered in their church in Alexandria; a further 27 died in clashes with police in Cairo.
This week, the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that it was withdrawing from talks on a new Egyptian constitution because Islamist domination of the process has made its participation ‘pointless’. The haemorrhage continues. There are no such problems in the Gulf, of course, where Christians, virtually all ‘guest workers’, have no chance of becoming citizens. The Saudis have gone one step further to preserve their ethnic purity: churches and Christian worship, in line with the opinion of Sheikh Abdullah, have been outlawed (the small, isolated community of Syriacs are forced to live as ‘catacomb Christians’ and worship in secret).
Earlier this year, the Saudis demonstrated once again they mean business when they deported 35 Ethiopian Christians, mostly women, for ‘illicit mingling’. Their crime was to attend a prayer service at a private home in Jeddah. Before being deported, Human Rights Watch reported, the women were strip-searched by religious police and the men beaten up to chants of ‘unbeliever’.
When I visited the then-mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, about 30 years ago, he happily boasted that about three quarters of the population of his town, the birthplace of Christianity, was Christian. Today, after a reign of terror which included land theft, intimidation and beatings by recently arrived Islamic extremists, the figure is estimated to be down to 10 per cent. The Christians of Bethlehem, under pressure from the new Muslim majority, are quietly finding new homes wherever émigrés are permitted safer havens.
Bethlehem is a microcosm of a phenomenon that is evident throughout the Palestinian territories. Against a drumbeat of harassment, which has included calls by Muslim extremists to slaughter their Christian neighbours, half of the Palestinian Christians of Gaza have fled their homes since the Hamas putsch in 2007. In the West Bank, Christians, who once accounted for 15 per cent of the population, are now down to less than 2 per cent.
It should be noted that since the establishment of Israel — the only state in the region to guarantee freedom of worship to all faiths and the only state to have outlawed racism — the Arab Christian population has increased by an estimated 2,000 per cent.
Never mind the ‘Israeli apartheid’ myths that flourish on Britain’s university campuses. What intrigues me is why Britain’s political and media classes, normally so sensitive to humanitarian issues, turn away in the face of the very real apartheid-style oppression that persists in the Arab world; why they remain silent as Christians are persecuted and the UN Human Rights Council, which last month endorsed the human rights record of Libya’s late Muammar Gaddafi, peddles its bizarre nonsense.
At least part of the answer can be found in the tendency of the British cognoscenti, in thrall to their colonial guilt no less than their need for oil, to infantilise Arab regimes. Arabs are not held accountable for their behaviour or responsible for their actions because this would contradict the script.
Under cover of the febrile Arab Spring, there appears to be a concerted campaign to cleanse the region of its Christians, once a driving force of its economic, cultural and social life. No one has proposed a strategy for saving them or ameliorating their plight. But it would be tawdry — tragic, even — if western governments chose to acquiesce in this persecution and sacrifice the Christians on the altar of good relations with the Islamists.
I once asked the Israel correspondent of the Times why he devoted so much space to Israel’s misdeeds and so little to those of the Palestinians. His response was succinct: ‘We expect more of Israel.’
There is a problem with that answer. To hold Arabs to an inferior standard, overlooking cruel excesses against a particular section of their own population and turning a blind eye to the antics of the UN Human Rights Council, carries the unpleasant whiff of racism.
Douglas Davis, who was exiled from apartheid South Africa, is a former senior editor of the Jerusalem Post.